How to be Both


By Ali Smith

avg rating

6 reviews

Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, this book features forms, times, truths and fictions.


27 May 2015

From Terri in the V-60 Book Group"

Ali Smith's 'How to Be Both' is a book full of dualities. The novel contains two separate (but interlinked) stories, written from two different points of view, set in two different time periods -- and the order of the stories changes depending on which copy of the novel you pick up. (In my copy, the Renaissance story came first, followed by the contemporary tale...a sequence that worked just fine.)

My response to the novel was full of dualities as well: I loved it and I was infuriated by it, my opinion changing back and forth, over and over, as I read. Smith's writing, at its best, is stunning (particularly in the Renaissance section), and yet her prose in other portions of the book (largely in the modern section) seemed slap-dash and rushed, the secondary characters and story structure not entirely thought through. My opinion of the book changed so often, and so dramatically, as I progressed through its pages that I was left with a kind of emotional whiplash by the time I put it down.

Things about the book I loved: Smith's evocation of the lives of women artists, historical and contemporary. (Her brief nod to Ida John and Edna Clarke Hall made me want to stand up and cheer.) Her portrayal of love and friendship between women, between women and men, between parents and children, between siblings. Her smart and verbally adroit main characters.

And yet I still don't know quite what to make of this book. Parts of Smith's novel are positively brilliant (I'm not using the word lightly), yet it doesn't quite hang together as a whole. I have rarely been so infuriated by a book! Her work reminds me of Jeanette Winterson's, and even of Virginia Woolf's -- without either writers' finely honed control, but with a sly, mischievous energy of her own. I loved this book; and I hated it. I think it's gorgeous; and I think it's half-baked. I don't think it should win the Bailey Prize; and I'm awfully glad I read it because of the Prize.

"Smith has pushed me way out of my comfort zone as a reader, and challenged my ideas of what a novel should be. Her book has exhilarated me and disappointed me. And I'm going to have to read it again.

26 May 2015

I'm one of the Wine, Women and Words fence sitters on this one. Some elements of it I really enjoyed - the descriptions of George's very raw pain and grief after the death of her mother, Francesco's very necessary subterfuge to succeed in the male dominated (off the canvas) Renaissance and the links between life 500 years ago and life now, it really wasn't that different. Some parts though left me feeling it was just trying a bit too hard. Being consistently interesting to the reader and challenging, not always easy to be both.

26 May 2015


I have just finished reading this book along with the rest of my reading group 'Wine, Women and Words'. As a group we had mixed feelings about the book with three of us loving it, four sitting on the fence and two really not enjoying it. I was one of those who loved it.

It is a very clever book with only two chapters, both called chapter one. The order in which the chapters are read is dependent upon the copy of the book picked up. One chapter is the story of Francesco del Cossa, a little know Italian Renaissance artist and the other the contemporary story of George, a teenage girl whose mother has recently died. The two stories are bound together on one level by Francesco's frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, but on another by both the superficiality and complexities of our existence and place in time. The story bounces between the characters past, present and in Francesco's case the future where he/she looks into George's modern world with some confusion.

The order in which the chapters are read no doubt make a difference to how the book is viewed by the reader, with my eureka moment only coming three quarters of the way through. This was not an easy read but I found the book explored some fascinating themes around sexuality, equality and our relationship with the past and other people which all sucked me in. Definitely worthy of its place on the Bailey's Prize 2015 shortlist in my opinion.

26 May 2015

I’ve just finished reading Ali Smith’s ‘How to be both’, as shortlisted by the Baileys Women’s prize for fiction 2015 and I must say, (never trust Amazon reviews) I was expecting to hate it. Whilst I concede it is a ‘marmite’ book; I loved it. You may hate it and may find it pretentious, but I loved the intellectual challenge it provided and would argue firstly that the description of Renaissance art was so down to earth that it was one of the things I loved about it. Indeed, I remember going to the National Gallery last week to see one of the paintings mentioned in the book and mocking some of parts of the art, only be pleasantly surprised by George as she states, “The duck looks really surprised, like its saying what the f___” and Franchesco who paints the Duke’s horse with extra big balls. (Like a Medieval equivalent of a Ferrari penis extension or something)

Ok I had to read the first few pages of Franchesco’s entry twice, but eventually I think I understood what it was about. If indeed it is meant to be understood. George would just tell me that I needed to see symbolism in everything I see.

Certainly, Ali Smith has left many questions unanswered and there is definitely a philosophical element to the book but I enjoyed that too. The dual narrative is original and brilliant and the main characters are witty, audacious, intelligent, sardonic and feminist and for these reasons so likeable.
Lastly, on a personal note, having studied the Italian Renaissance and lived in Italy, I loved that Ali Smith transported me back there. This book rekindled my love of words, grammar, art and history. It’s a worthy member of the Baileys Women’s prize shortlist and I certainly can’t wait to read the rest.

21 May 2015

Becky U

“How to be both” – first impressions. I’m about 30 pages in and have to say that I’m struggling to understand what’s happening. It feels like a poem rather than a novel. It jumps, its disjointed and unclear. It also doesn’t have speech marks which I find annoying. However, I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. I think its going to be one of those books where you’re not really supposed to follow exactly what’s going on. - Jenny

I liked “How to be both” – but I wasn’t blown away by it. I can see why its won so many awards. It’s a very clever book that tries very hard. There are parts of it, when the story shines through, that I really liked – but then it drifts away or jumps, and then jumps again and you find yourself a bit lost. Its not a book I would recommend to my friends but it’s a book I’m glad I stuck with and finished. I was expecting the links between the two stories to have more ‘wow’ factor but they didn’t. I’m not sure if I would have liked it better if I’d received a version that started with George’s story. - Jenny's update

A 3 word review:
At first I thought of
"Coming of ages"
"How art endures!"
just occurred to me the French phrase could sum it up well
Plus ca change
I loved the book, so colourful, so inventive! It teases, makes you think. It's moving and fascinating and complex. I found myself flicking back frequently to check references through the two different stories, how they link up - and not being irritated but enjoying that! I will definitely re-read at another point, and perhaps back to front? The characters leapt off the page (and off the fresco). Not sure I've fathomed out what the title means. How to be alive and dead? Mediaeval and 21st century? Artist and subject?

Houghton Reading Group

06 May 2015

Brilliant read. Creates another world filled with interesting characters to connect with... in this and the 15th century. Starts a journey that may end up in Italy - or in Cambridge or both... no spoilers here! loved it, loved it. Highly recommeded.

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